How is it that each of us is known?
What is the “I” that is recognized by others? Is it the same “I” that we recognize in ourselves?
Recall God’s self-revelation in the Torah. “I Am Who I Am,” God says.
The interesting thing about growing old is that although the external scaffolding may change, the “me” that each of us lives with is there from day to day and year to year.
Yet we all know that with the passing of years, our knowledge and experience does change us, adds to the sum total of who we are. To live a life without change would be dull and fruitless.
“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,” wrote John Henry Newman in 1845 in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
But what is the nature of that change and what are its consequences?
We are defined in our early years by our family circumstances, our neighborhood, our schools and, to an increasing extent, by our friends.
These external factors shape and influence our formative years and have long term consequences for our future.
An essential part of growing up is finding out who we are and to appreciate how others perceive us.
The courage to declare who I am
We might in consequence modify our personal image or our tastes in dress, music and speech in an attempt to become more acceptable in the day-to-day patterns of life.
Or, of course, we might take an alternative view and accentuate aspects that others don’t appreciate just to be awkward.
There are occasions where declaring who “I am” is a matter of some courage.
It is worth remembering that no one more than the late Martin Luther King Jr. (whose birthday we remember each year on January 15th) declared fearlessly who he was and ultimately paid the price for it.
It was the question that Mark tells us that Jesus put to his friends.
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
In fact, this was a recurrent theme throughout Jesus’ public ministry, right up to his appearance before Pilate when he was asked if he were King of the Jews.
The identity of the speaker adds credibility to his or her words and we listen more attentively.
Saying one thing and acting in a different manner is soon found out and the person involved becomes discredited. The way we act is ultimately more important than what we say.
The phrases “actions speak louder than words” and “put your money where your mouth is” succinctly sum up that position.
The respect we gain is determined by the respect we give. In fact, this concern for the wellbeing of others is a central tenet of our Christian faith — service, care and generosity over and above personal gain.
Yet, the secular society in which we live is centered so much the “I” of being.
The “me society” asks first and foremost, “what do I get from this, what’s in it for me?” The simple instance of highly-inflated salaries for a few at the expense of subsistence wages for others is all too evident across the world.
A word from Gandhi on the 70th anniversary of his assassination
But people do change with age, and the “I” that is can seem remote from the “I” that once was. The learning curve may have been rough and the journey long, but it was made none the less.
To be able to ask the question “who am I?” and get a working answer, we have to ask a supplementary question — “and what have I done?” But sometimes it is those with few possessions that leave the greatest footsteps.
We will soon be marking the 70th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948 in New Delhi. He was a man without possessions other than the principles by which he lived and urged others to live.
Gandhi’s famous remark, “I like your Christ but not your Christians,” emphasizes that we are recognized, not by fine words and eloquent phrases, but by the way we react with and relate to others.
It is a salutary lesson for those who carry the name of Christ as an essential part of their identity to realize that we have something offered to us that we must “be”, day-in and day- out, ever-willing as Newman suggested to change to make it better.
Reflecting the other day on the “I” that was and the “I” that is, I wrote these few lines:
The I of who I am
is often casually lost
in the garbage and noise
of each day’s passing.
Don’t tell each other
about your life belief’s
rather attend to being
who you are in their company.
Chris McDonnell is a retired headteacher from England and a regular contributor to La Croix International.
By Chris McDonnell, republished with the permission of La Croix International.